Faith vs. Ethics in Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Essay (Book Review)
The non-fiction book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals a story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cancer cells were removed right after her death from cervix cancer. The book reveals contradictory issues related to medical ethics, science, and legal aspects. The author of the book, Rebecca Skloot, presents the life of a real-life woman, as well as the influence of poverty, race, and science on medical research. In addition, Skloot clearly describes the science and traces racial underpinnings of medical politics.
The writer also highlights the story of HeLa cells development, as well as the role of an African American woman in medical and scientific discoveries, including cloning, polio vaccine, and vitro fertilization. Overall, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a story of a sophisticated confrontation between ethics, medicine, and ethics, as well as a collision between faith healing and discovery. Thus, HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks were considered the most significant contribution to science and microbiology. The woman, however, was not related to medicine and science. In February 1951, Mrs Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and she died some months later.
Before discussing aspects of scientific discovery and healthcare improvement, ethical concerns of the case should be addressed as well. Painful experiences of scientific research represented in the book introduce the exploration of the history of ethics within a context of scientific research in the United States. Moreover, the non-fiction story is dedicated to exploring people’s perceptions and prejudices with regard to scientists, science, and the research community.
In this respect, Skloot brilliantly illustrates the account of the Lacks family – both past and present – is strongly connected with dark history of scientific experimentation on African American people, as well as to the emergence of bioethics and legal constraints. In the first part of the book called Life, the author traces the Lacks family’s emotional suffering, including the changing ethical and legal patterns related to the collection of tissues, as well as to careless researchers and journalists who infringed the laws and interfered with the family’s privacy. To highlight the paradox, Skloot refers to the experiences of Henrietta’s daughter Debora:
“Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science because it helps people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore…But I won’t live, I would like some health insurance so I don’t get to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make” (256).
The spirit of faith, which opposes to the prerogatives of science, is promulgated by the author in her “lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible” (Skloot 7). In such a way, the author wants to emphasize that science fails to adhere to the most primitive principles of ethics and morality for the sake of discoveries and inventions. In the course of development of HeLa cells project the Lacks family becomes more aware of the legality and ethicality of the given research, as well as their attitude and outlook on science and faith.
Apart from scientific and family issues, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reflects a critique of scientific discovery that focuses on neglecting the messy origin of human and its materials. In this respect, Skloot writes, “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from” (216). Focusing only on medical purposes of microbiology, science relieved itself from the responsibilities and duties imposed by the rules of morality and ethics, which were not considered yet during those times.
In the book, much concern is connected with the way Henrietta expressed her attitude toward her illness, as well as how the members of her family considered Henrietta’s serious diseases. To emphasize the deep faith into Henrietta as personality, Sklook writers, “Hennie didn’t fade away, you know, her looks, her body, telling that she wasn’t gonna be alive no more” (64). Thus, the mystery of the Lacks family’s visions, perceptions, and attitudes contradicted the existing views on medicine and science. In the book, the author emphasizes, “…She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” (162). Deep faith into the immortality and legacy of asking for health insurance undermines the legacy of scientific inventions based on ignorance of lacks family.
Henrietta’s family, thus, was unaware of the “immortality” of Henrietta’s cells until twenty years had passed after her death. The author introduces evidence of scientists using Henrietta’s children and husband cells without formal consent. Despite the fact that the cell project had introduced a multimillion-dollar business selling human biological materials, Lacks family never received a cent of the profits.
As a result, Skloot becomes more concerned with lives and experiences of the Lacks family, particularly that of Henrietta’s daughter Debora, who was really shocked to learn about the existence of her mother’s cells. Indeed, she was overwhelmed with questions about her mother. Debora longed to know everything that related to scientific research, as well as to the peculiarity of her mother’s cells. She also raised questions about cloning and she was interested in the fate of her sister Elsie. With regard to the above-posed questions, the ethical issues raised in the book are interconnected and extremely complicated.
Since the death of Henrietta and discovery of “immortal cells”, science has experienced significant advances and overshadowed people’s ability to understand whether it is right or wrong to use human cells as a biological material that could save lives of other people and that could bring in significant achievement to medical world. In 1980s, the practices similar to those occurred to Henrietta Lacks, were also help with other people, without their knowledge and consent. However, this was the first time when the family of the patient filed a lawsuit and the California Supreme Court upheld the decision to provide patients with the right to protect their issues from external intrusion and unlawful intrusions for scientific purposes.
What is more importantly, the court recognized that the doctors should reveal their actual financial and economic interests, as well as consider legal issues before removing cells and other tissues from their patients. In addition, the legal system has gradually evolved to have introduced new limitations and patient protections to increase legal and ethical responsibility that should be imposed on doctors. Several decades later, the RAND Corporation estimated the profits received by American laboratories received over 307 million samples of tissues from 178 million people (Skloot 5).
Thus, the author notes that the question of obtaining form consent from the patients and their families to store cells has not been revealed yet, as well as the question of profitability of tissues research and distribution. Nowadays, HeLa cells weight is estimated as over 50 million metric tones (Skloot 4). Thus, discoveries have been introduced, careers have been promoted, profits have been advanced, and human lives have been returned. After two decades of ignorance, the Lacks family received compensation, as well as recognition for Henrietta’s cells legacy. The acknowledgment of the health insurance was due to the emergence of the concept of informed consent that evolved in medical sphere.
Aside from the legal and ethical issues, there is much mystery about the immortality of human cells that did not die like cells of other people. Skloot has initiated an extensive research related to Henrietta’s genome and a combination of diseases to find answers to this problem, but she has failed to resolve the issues. Within these perspectives, HeLa cell line cannot be explained within scientific perspectives, but with the help of the information from beyond. At this point, the author refers to the faith of healing and immortality of Henrietta’s soul.
This is where scientific understanding and religion faith collide and highlight the boundaries of the explicable and the non-explicable. Religious power is strongly associated with the beliefs of the Lacks family. Their views on man’s destination related to the assumption that “man brought nothing into this world and he’ll carry nothing out. Sometimes we care about stuff too much. We worry when there’s nothing to worry about” (Skloot 264). The secret of immortality, therefore, relied heavily on the concept of faith and commitment to religion.
Faith perspectives are also revealed in the following passage: “Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense” (Skloot 296). Thus, much content has been expanded through religious prism, which is also discussed in the book as the concepts of heavenly bodies and soul cleansing. While analyzing the last part of the book, it can be understood that Henrietta Lacks and Deborah were committed to faith. In fact, religion and faith have always been treated as the ones opposed to science. Moreover, the author emphasizes that faith have played a vital role in healing and health in African-American culture.
In conclusion, it should be stressed that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reflects a story intertwined with sophisticated experiences related to science, faith, religion, and medical ethics. The author has managed to explore interesting and fascinating topics which touch on the eternal confrontation between science and faith. On the on hand, the immortality of HeLa cells is considered a phenomenal scientific discovery that has introduced significant advances to medical sphere as well.
On the other hand, the book reflects the matters of faith and religion that explains the immortality and uniqueness of cells, which could not bed explained by science. Finally, the book is also a reflection on the sufferings and hard experiences of the Lacks family that had been living in ignorance for two decades. Thus, the author is more concerned with the concept of ethics, morality, and faith, as well as their impact on the development of science.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. US: Crown, 2010. Print.
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